I had been thinking about posting about immigration recently, because some facts on the ground have caused me to move away from a pure laissez-faire position on it. A few minutes ago I wrote a long comment on G+ that I realized says a lot of what I wanted to. This is a slightly revised and expanded version of that comment.
I am asked, by another member of the educated white elite, why we shouldn’t simply end border enforcement entirely rather than buid a wall or tolerate Joe Arpaio’s squalid detention camps.
Both here and in Europe there’s been a significant spike in communicable diseases that can be traced back to low immunization rates in what Trump may or may not have called “shithole” countries.
Crime is a real issue. Legal immigrants have a slightly higher criminal propensity than the native born (the difference is small enough that its significance is disputed) but illegals’ propensity is much higher, to the point that 22% of all federal incarcerees are illegals (that’s 92% of all jailed immigrants).
But the elephant in the room is the impact of illegal immigration on social trust.
Diversity erodes social trust, trust being that extremely valuable form of social capital that enables people to make handshake deals, leave their doors unlocked, and trust institutions to treat them fairly. Sociologist Robert Putnam was so shocked to discover this that he sat on his results for seven years before publishing. In diverse communities trust drops not only between ethnolinguistic groups but within them. It’s insidious and very harmful – low-trust societies are bad, bad places to live.
The U.S. has a proud tradition of assimilating legal immigrants into a high-trust society, but it succeeds in this by making them non-diverse – teaching them to assimilate folk values and blend in. Putnam’s work suggests strongly that without the ability to rate-limit immigration to be within some as yet undetermined maximum, the harm from erosion of trust would exceed the benefits of immigration.
We are probably above the optimal legal immigration rate – the highest compatible with avoiding net decrease in social trust over time – already (later in this post it should become obvious why I believe this). There is little doubt that we would greatly exceed it without immigration controls.
Anyway, even if ending border enforcement were a good idea (and I conclude that it is not, despite my libertarian reflexes) it’s a political nonstarter in the U.S. Trump got elected by appealing to sentiment against illegals, and beneath that is a phenomenon one might call Putnam backlash; everywhere outside a few blue-state enclaves, Americans sense the erosion of social trust and have connected it to illegal immigration.
If you run around saying “We should end border enforcement”, enough people to form a blocking coalition are going to hear that as “He wants the U.S. to sit on its hands as erosion of social trust degrades it into a shithole.” Of course most of them don’t have this intellectually analyzed – it’s a more a gut feeling. But no less powerful for that, especially since the problem is real.
Do you want more Trump? Because that is how you get more Trump – or possibly someone worse. I don’t think there is actually a large cohort of Americans willing to sign on to full-throated 19th-century-style nativism yet, and I’m glad of that. But that’s where the next turn of the screw takes us.
We can only save the positive benefits of immigration by controlling it. And by growing some freaking humility about our biases. It’s easy for elite whites like you and me to see only the upside of immigration (cool restaurants, interesting music, exotically pretty girls, lower price levels due to labor cost push on the things we buy, getting to feel virtuous about our inclusivity); immigration seldom has any obvious downside for us unless we roll snake-eyes and get killed by MS-13 or something.
We tend to miss the fact that if you’re a native-born unskilled laborer or minority or legal immigrant the cost-benefit ratio looks very different and not favorable at all. Loose labor markets are good to us, but sure as hell not to our poorer compatriots. A little more compassion and a little less class-blindness on our part would be an improvement.
(My comment ended here. Had I continued addressing my interlocutor directly I would have added the following…)
One of the major forces currently poisoning our politics is a breakdown in trust between people like you and me – the cognitive elites – and the rest of America. Deplorables. Flyover country. Brexit, and Trump’s election, slapped me upside the head. I’ve been forced to confront some uncomfortable truths.
They think we’ve betrayed and abandoned them for a mess of virtue signaling and glib ideologizing. On the left: identity politics, PC, and open borders justified on multiculturalist grounds. On the right: free trade and open borders justified on laissez-faire principle.
They have a point. I’m seeing that now.
I mean, I might still think free trade is a good idea and have lots of arguments for it. But my arguments don’t mean fuck-all to a Rust-Belt steelworker who’s watched his livelihood get exported and the community around him wither and has nothing left but a cheap high on opioids. Nor to an unskilled black or legal-immigrant urbanite who can’t get a job because the restaurants can hire illegals for cheaper.
We owe these people more than we have given them. What we owe can’t mainly be paid in money. It’s compassion; a fair hearing. Respect. Not dismissing them as trash or troglodytes or racists because they don’t love the brave new globalized world that gives us options but – too often – closes off theirs.
I don’t have easy solutions to these problems. But is it too much to ask that people like you and me should stop being arrogant assholes about them?
UPDATE: I’m sure I’ll be asked how I reconcile border controls with my libertarian principles. It’s a fair question – before Putnam I wouldn’t have tried, or even wanted to. Now I think in these terms: regardless of how you feel about government, high trust is a valuable kind of property for a society to have, and an ethically correct thing for it to defend.